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Project February 6, 2017

The Rebirth of the Shi'a-Sunni Divide

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Met Abdel Moneim al Shahat, a powerful Salafist leader who has been at the forefront of a campaign in Egypt aimed at keeping Shi’a Muslims out of the country and confronting those Sunnis, particularly the youth, who dare to convert to Shi’ism. Image by Geneive Abdo. Egypt, 2017.
Met Abdel Moneim al Shahat, a powerful Salafist leader who has been at the forefront of a campaign in Egypt aimed at keeping Shi’a Muslims out of the country and confronting those Sunnis, particularly the youth, who dare to convert to Shi’ism. Image by Geneive Abdo. Egypt, 2017.

Throughout history, competing groups, sects, and schools of Islamic law all struggled to define the Islamic faith for a diverse and often contentious community of believers. But in recent times, it was the Arab uprisings that brought identity and religion once again to the fore. A core issue in the post-Arab uprising era is the question of who is a true believer and who is an unbeliever. This exclusionist mindset is most evident in the conflict between Shi'a and Sunni Muslims.

One of the many reasons that sectarianism is so intractable and will, unfortunately, plague the Middle East for years to come, is that all players in the violent conflict claim to have a monopoly on religious truth. Whose Islam is it? Is it that of the Salafist who wants to return to how he says Islam was practiced during the time of the Prophet Muhammad; or that of the banned Muslim Brotherhood leader in Egypt; or ISIS?

In this project journalist Geneive Abdo, reports from Egypt, where despite an insignificant Shi'a presence, there is growing alarm among Sunni religious figures about the "Shi'a threat." She also explores how the geopolitical struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia has an affect on the ground among local leaders and communities.

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